Identity, understanding and love key to promoting mission in a polarized society, say assembly panelists

June 2024
From left, Dr. Claudia Ruiz Sotomayor; Michael Sean Winters; Cathleen Kaveny; and Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, take part in a panel at the 2024 Catholic Health Assembly. Sotomayor is chief of the Ethics Consultation Service and clinical ethicist for the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University; Winters is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter; Kaveny is professor of law and theology at Boston College; and Sr. Mary is CHA president and CEO and moderator of that panel discussion.


SAN DIEGO — How can Catholic health care's mission and vision continue to advance care for all that promotes dignity and the common good? How can Catholic health care do that in a polarized American society?

A panel of speakers addressed those issues at the 2024 Catholic Health Assembly. CHA President and CEO Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, moderated the discussion and asked them about bold approaches.

Cathleen Kaveny, professor of law and theology at Boston College, asked the audience to go back to their roots, to imagine what it would be like if the Irish sisters led by Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy, were to get off the boat or a plane in America today.

"Where would they see the most need? Where would they go?" Kaveny asked. "And I think that the question that in some sense has to help determine where you all are going today ... who are the most marginalized today?" 

From left, Sotomayor discusses polarization in American culture as fellow panelists Winter, Kaveny and Sr. Mary look on.

The panel also included Dr. Claudia Ruiz Sotomayor, chief of the Ethics Consultation Service and clinical ethicist for the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University; and Michael Sean Winters, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.

Sotomayor, while discussing the importance of people understanding one another's needs, talked about working with a Mayan community in Mexico as a physician. She was treating a little girl who likely had tuberculosis, which was curable with medicine, but the girl died after her skeptical parents didn't want to give it to her. Sotomayor met with a shaman to learn more about their culture and ways of treating illness.

She told him she wasn't there to impose her religious beliefs or engage in colonialism. "This is not my agenda. I really want to help. How can I help?" she asked.

She got a crash course in Mayan health care, and gradually earned the community's trust. "It really takes a long time, but it's about building trust and getting to know who you are serving," she said. "But that step is what we need to take to really understand who our population is, who the patient is. ... It's important."

Winters spoke of ways to better engage with others, especially given today's polarized society. "Polarization is one of those things you can't come at head-on," he said. "You have to come at it at a 45-degree angle.

"You have to get people working together on something that they share an interest in, and not let them notice that they're working together. And then downstream, they can notice that, and maybe you can say, ha, see? You can overcome this."

People might have different understandings of a concept like freedom, he pointed out, but you have to talk about those different perspectives to come to an understanding.

"And I think everything in our media ... the algorithms of social media, the nature of our political system right now, is designed to keep us from doing that," he said.

Kaveny said that there are ways of defining identity in a pluralistic culture that aren't particularly helpful, and that Catholic health care leaders shouldn't look at identity as something that separates or distinguishes them from others. "That's a brand, not an identity," she said.

Catholic health care leaders shouldn't focus on the things that they don't do, Kaveny said. "The nuns who started Catholic health care were defined by what they imagined, what they did, what they built, not what they didn't do," she said.

She went back to foundress McAuley who said that some people think they need to pray to be holy rather than dressing a cancer wound. "Our identity is getting caught up in the messiness and the pain of other people's lives, as Catholics and as people engaged in caring for whole human beings," said Kaveny.

Sr. Mary pointed out that Pope Francis speaks of a culture of encounter as a necessary means to develop authentic or right relationships, and asked the panel to describe a right relationship, and how Catholic health care can do a better job promoting such relationships.

Sotomayor said it takes a dance of love and respect to build trust. "It's more complex than that, I realize," she said. "But I think that the bottom line is if we as Catholic institutions really want to bear witness of the love of Christ, we have to start with that. Love. What is love? Love is the essence of who we are."


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